One of the sporting world’s greatest truths, as stated by American soccer star Alex Morgan is that “winning and losing isn’t everything; sometimes, the journey is just as important as the outcome.” The Blue Devils, who closed their historic season Friday night with a 15-5-3 record, experienced that truth.
Playing at a sold-out Alabama Soccer Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., with hundreds more fans watching from outside, No. 2-seed Duke put its best foot forward. It was a heavily defensive game as the Blue Devils played the nation’s second-ranked scoring offense, No. 1-seed Alabama, which entered the contest with 73 goals on the season and an average of 2.92 per game. As the two teams competed for a chance to play in the College Cup, the stakes could not have been higher.
Though the Duke defense shut out its opponent in the first half, Alabama lived up to its reputation in the second. But on a night full of pushback, the Blue Devils came back to finish regulation 2-2.
Yet, the final blow of the game happened in the first overtime and 98th minute, as the Alabama attack drove the ball toward the goal, where it found Reyna Reyes, who kicked it in. With the score 3-2 in the Crimson Tide’s favor, the Blue Devils’ dream of a national championship was cut short.
“Their front five really pressed us, made it hard for us to get into our rhythm of play,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said after the game. “[It] was hard for us to build and play through. When we did, we had some success.”
Less than 15 minutes remained on the clock when it became clear that the Blue Devils were not done yet. The odds were against them—Alabama led in score 2-0, in shots 15-6 and in corners 11-1. But after Crimson Tide goalkeeper McKinley Crone kicked the ball out toward the midfield, junior defender Emily Royson stole it in transition to feed it up top. Sophomore forward Michelle Cooper received it and drained it in the left side of the net while Crone fell to the right.
Cooper was not done yet, as just three minutes later, she would get her second goal of the night on a feed from graduate midfielder Delaney Graham, who had gotten it from freshman forward Kat Rader. Left open by her defender, the Clarkston, Mich., native volleyed the ball past Crone, adding the goal to the many she has scored this season in one-on-one situations. Not only did she break Duke’s single-season record with her 19th goal, but she also put Duke back in the game at 2-2 with less than 12 minutes to go.
“This group does not give up when it comes down,” Church said. “We’ve played in some tough places this year, been down a couple a number of times too, but we keep fighting and scratching and clawing. And when we pulled it back up even, we had a couple of really good chances when it was even to take the lead.”
From kickoff, the two teams had even looks. Both offenses started hot, as in the second minute, Alabama was already on its way with a chance at goal. Just a few minutes after that chance, it was Duke on the Crimson Tide’s side with a chance up top.
Duke’s first two early attacking plays toward Alabama’s goal resulted in passes that were too deep and were intercepted by the Crimson Tide. With the early interceptions on their side, Alabama would have its second chance just six minutes in, and then its third, fourth and fifth chances in the ninth, 10th and 11th minutes.
“It took us a moment to sort of calm the game down and try to play our game—and so that was a challenge for us,” Duke goalkeeper Ruthie Jones said. “Really the whole game.”
Cooper suffered an injury in the 17th minute, falling while racing the Alabama defense for the ball. But that was just the tip of the iceberg that the night had in store for the two squads, as before the 20th minute, Alabama had three fouls, while Duke had five and two yellow cards. Those numbers would only rise throughout the half, as the Crimson Tide caught up to Duke with eight fouls to the Blue Devils’ five. By the end of the game, Alabama had 21 fouls while Duke had 17.
Alabama’s best chance in the first half came off the boot of freshman Gianna Paul, who drove the ball uncontested toward Duke’s goal in the 31st minute. Fortunately for the Blue Devils, Jones beat her out at the last second, grabbing it as Paul attempted to dodge her and score on an open goal. Paul would get another chance after being fed the ball from Gessica Skorka, yet, guarded on each side, the ball was forced out for a Crimson Tide corner kick.
After getting a free kick near the midfield in the 67th minute, Alabama’s Felicia Knox kicked the ball toward the Blue Devil defensive end. The ball reached a Crimson Tide player who controlled it to kick across the goal, where Jones was unable to save it before it found Paul. With her first open shot of the night, Paul volleyed it into the goal, making the game 1-0.
The Crimson Tide’s second goal of the night came in the 72nd minute from Ashlynn Serepca, who was assisted by Riley Tanner and Skorka.
“Getting one goal is one push forward. And getting a second goal is another push forward,” Cooper said. “Unfortunately, the third didn’t come. But those two goals were huge for us and gave us a lot more momentum, I believe, in the game.”
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